Third Rail Projects is a dance/theater company specializing in minutely conceived, site-specific, immersive shows and the creators of Then She Fell, a wildly successful, down-the-rabbit-hole leap into The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, performed in a former hospital ward in Brooklyn. And performed there still: the show is now halfway into its fifth year of performances. A shorter-lived, but no less ambitious hit followed in 2016, The Grand Paradise, which invited seekers of hedonistic escapism to a 70s-styled pleasure palace (in reality, a Bushwick warehouse). It ran for nearly a year. Those shows were designed to surprise and unsettle, taking audiences out of their comfort zones as spectators. In Ghost Light however, an immersive piece about theater itself, it could be Third Rail that is venturing out of its comfort zone, as the company moves uptown, all the way to Lincoln Center, to take up residence in the tony digs of the Claire Tow Theater at LCT3, for a comparatively brief, 7-week summer run.
Like Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise, Ghost Light indulges in elaborate costumes and sets to create a fantastical atmosphere and marshals a huge cast to create a series of intimate, sometimes one-on-one experiences for audiences – promises that don’t always hold here, however. The show takes its cue from stories of haunted theaters, and audiences are led behind the scenes at the Claire Tow – to wardrobing, the tech booth, dressing rooms, backstage, even fire stairs and storage corridors … – to meet some famous “ghosts” of theater through the ages. But whereas previous shows asked audiences to really watch performers, by throwing them right up against each other, in Ghost Light, it sometimes felt like Third Rail was the audience at its own performance about performance. Loren Noveck and Molly Grogan shared notes after a preview.
Loren: I’m generally a big fan of theater that acknowledges its conditions of production, its own theatricality. So in that sense, I’m all in for a piece that makes the audience conscious of the present tense of theater, or of the eternal present of theatrical time. And as a lifelong theater techie–prop master, stage manager, costume shopper, you name it–I’m delighted to be taken literally behind the scenes in a top- of – the – line theater space. There’s something thrilling for me in just getting to see wall-mounted set models or the lighting booth or what kind of washer/dryer LCT3 has in its wardrobe room.
Still, I feel like Third Rail missed an opportunity to embed an actual piece of theater in the center of its backstage piece; we spend the evening circling the periphery and peeking in on rehearsals or tech runthroughs or even tender backstage moments between actors who think themselves unseen. But every time we see, or (more interestingly) participate in, the making of an actual play, it’s classical/repertory pastiche: a dash of Shakespeare, a pinch of Beckett, a little nineteenth century melodrama, a little brassy noir. I think they’re trying to speak to the universality of theatre, but somehow get sidelined into the generic.
Which is a shame because there are plenty of moments imbued with magic–not least in getting to actually be part of the action (wrangling a piece of scenery from the flies in my case).
I wonder, though, whether my very familiarity with the backstage elements makes me more demanding of some sort of narrative to unravel at the core. If I was devoting more mental energy to understanding what was happening during the scene set at a tech rehearsal, for example, would I have cared as much about what the actress was saying?
Molly: Right, I think we both wanted to see this because of the show’s metatheater premise and were similarly disappointed when it didn’t translate into anything substantive about theater but rather offered a too easy “best of’s”. Like you, I thought that most of the fun was in the voyeuristic pleasure of getting backstage at LCT but that made me wonder how much of the sets, props and costumes we saw came from the theater’s stock or was brought in by the company; in other words, if the show was inspired by the materials at hand or had a predetermined vision.
I didn’t feel the magic as much as you did, I think. The scenes worked best when the audience was involved, whether as part of a scene’s action, however falteringly or awkwardly, or by lending a hand to the controls. The three or four moments when we stood at a distance from the performers and watched a dance redrew the line between spectator and performer, for me at least, so that I found it increasingly hard after each of these to screw up my curiosity for the next scene.
Then She Fell was so intriguingly mysterious you just had to go with it, and you could fill in with the Alice in Wonderland story where and when you wanted some narrative structure. In contrast, The Grand Paradise set the stage quite deliberately, giving the audience a role as guests at this Florida, free love resort. In that show, we were part of the narrative. Ghost Light doesn’t try to explain why we would be backstage after hours at the Claire Tow – were we on a “tour”? – but it also wasn’t sufficiently atmospheric, despite the tease of hauntings, to work as a leap into a mysterious world. I didn’t know which way to read the performance, until about halfway through when I realized it was just a series of pastiches and wasn’t going to offer more than that. Some of those scenes felt like they had a raison d’Ãªtre and carried through. I liked the Shakespeare mash-up of soliloquies and the actor’s frustration in trying to stage a scene with us as actors. Later, we crossed through that room again and he was sitting with his head in his hands, alone. That had a satisfying closure, something about the futility of human effort at times and the ephemerality of performance itself. The other scenes were usually more enigmatic, but not mysterious enough to resonate.
Loren: I think I actually enjoyed this more than The Grand Paradise–there was more to engage and interact with in the built environment, which, I think, is as much the central character in a Third Rail production as any of the performers, maybe more so. Oddly, I don’t so much mind the lack of character–maybe because I do think of their work as almost as much dance as theater (so you will not be surprised to hear that the pure choreography sections also bothered me less). Sections of this piece in particular, though also Then She Fell, reminded me of Noemie Lafrance’s site-specific dance work. The section where we watch, aligned up a stairwell, the old-timey diva in gold sequins at the bottom of the stair, seemed very specifically to evoke Lafrance’s Descent, which was performed in the stairwell of the clock tower in a lower Manhattan courthouse some years ago.
But I do feel like there was a through-line , or a central conceit, missing. I think perhaps they got a little stuck on the concept of ghosts, and then spooled out a series of ideas, some of them tantalizing, but not necessarily adding up to anything: the characters who get cut out of plays entirely as ghosts; the way that theater’s relationship to time mirrors the perseverating recurrence of ghosts; the long tradition of ghosts in theaters represented by the ghost light itself; the perhaps ironic specificity of attributing a ghostly history to a brand-new space.
I also suspect, as I alluded to earlier, that there is more genuine discovery/mystery in the show for people who haven’t spent time backstage or worked in theater–and perhaps more for a Lincoln Center type of theater audience than the type of audience who’s going to travel to a warehouse in Bushwick. But I wonder if there’s been a little too much conscious intention to pitch this show to a tamer, more mainstream audience?
Molly: I think you’re right there. The audience in my group seemed positively titillated by just getting backstage, and got really excited by the participative scenes, so much so that they sometimes over-participated, if that’s possible. A woman in my party tried, unbidden, to lead our group off through a door, on the pretext that she was taking a “cue” from something the actor had said. A real/faux stagehand had to stop her from getting away. It certainly got me wondering how new all of the backstage workings were to everyone and how exotic the immersive genre might be to them as well. Given that the show is running in the summer also seems like a bid to draw in a tourist audience, building on the company’s reputation which has brought them commissions from Denver and Chicago now.
When I was describing the show later to my 12 year old daughter, she said, with total blasÃ© teen eye-rolling, “As if that’s never been done before.” At heart, the show is about the joy of making up stories in the huge, dark space of a theater, which appeals to everyone’s inner child. I did like the theater geek side of the show, though; a genuine love of the art form does come through.
The question I’m left with is what the show accomplishes as an immersive piece that couldn’t be done on stage. Maybe that seems like a dumb question because the point is obviously to go backstage and experience the magic of sets and makeup and scene changes. But backstage is the least satisfying “seat” in the house because you never see what happens on stage. This is what you were getting at, about the dramaturgical lacuna created by the lack of a backstage narrative. The action is going on “over there” on stage, so what are we left to look at? Here, not much more than a series of vignettes of theater genres and famous characters. Moreover our participation never felt necessary, even when we were making scenery move across the stage, and was never challenging, as it sometimes was in Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise.
Loren: Yeah, I think that question of what role is the audience playing here is crucial for this kind of immersive, site-specific work. Sometimes we were addressed specifically as audience members; sometimes as stage hands or janitors or actors; sometimes as voyeurs or bystanders who perhaps shouldn’t be seeing what we were seeing. I did enjoy the final moments where the entire group is brought together, to actually view the stage from the audience for the first time–but I wasn’t sure, in the internal logic of the show, how (or when) we were supposed to have gotten there.